I didn’t preach this Sunday, so there’s no new sermon today. This is an old one that I preached at Congregational United Church of Christ in Whitewater, Wisconsin, on September 15, 2013, when I was working for Back Bay Mission. The scripture for this sermon is Luke 15:1-10.
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming to him… and the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling.
I know this scene. I imagine that I’ve seen it in some painting or in the pages of an illustrated Bible.
Jesus is in the middle, all white robes and trimmed beard and wavy hair… because Jesus is always in the middle, all white robes and trimmed beard and wavy hair.
There are tax collectors and sinners in robes and rags, because tax collectors and sinners are always in robes and rags. They are the outcast, the marginalized, the disregarded, the unacknowledged, the hated, the despised. And they sit near Jesus, listening with rapt attention as he speaks about the cost of discipleship and the saltiness of salt.
And there in the corner talking amongst themselves are the Pharisees, men of dark robes and long beards and gaunt faces, because the Pharisees are always men of dark robes and long beards and gaunt faces who stand in the corner and talk amongst themselves.
And they are grumbling, saying things like, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
We know this scene. It’s a scene that’s made to seep into our bones and tell us who is good and who is bad. Here is Jesus: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Here are the Pharisees: paying their tithes on mint and dill and cumin, but neglecting justice and mercy and faith. We know whose side we are supposed to be on.
But the picture is wrong. The Pharisees aren’t bad guys.
The Pharisees are concerned with a very basic question: How can the people be Jewish – distinctly Jewish – while living under the constant threat of assimilation? How can the people be Jewish when they are ruled over by Gentiles? How can the people be Jewish when they are surrounded by Greek and Roman culture? How can the people be Jewish when it would be so much easier to abandon that identity and become just another Hellenized people in a backwater province on the edge of the Roman empire?
We know this question. Christians have been asking it for a while: How can we be Christian – distinctly Christian – while living under the constant temptation of secular Western consumer culture? How can we be Christian in a world where religion that sets you apart is a private matter and public religion has no flavor? How can we be Christian when we are surrounded by the lure of privilege and power and prosperity? How can we be Christian when it is so much easier to abandon that identity and become just like everyone else?
And, like many Christians today, the Pharisees settled upon an answer: there are the rules; here are the boundaries; if the people – not just the priests and Levites, but all of the people – keep the rules and stay inside the boundaries, then no one will risk assimilation and they will remain a people.
So, when they see this rather popular man flaunting the rules and crossing the boundaries and inviting other people to do the same, they grumble. Just like a lot of Christians grumble when they see people flaunting the rules and crossing the boundaries: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
There are grumblers today, of course: modern day Pharisees. There always have been.
I don’t know how you do communion here, but in my church and in the church I grew up in we pass the bread already broken and we pass the cup in little plastic single-serving cups. A lot of churches do this and what people don’t know is that this practice of little communion cups started in the 1890’s because some people were afraid of what it would mean to drink from the same cup as, y’know, one of those people… who might have diptheria or tuberculosis. Not that those diseases had ever been passed by a common cup.
It wasn’t just the physical disease, you see, but the moral disease… the risk of associating with those people.
We see the same thing with those churches that demand the submission of women or advocate so-called reparative therapies for people who are gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgendered. These aren’t about what’s best for the people but about making sure that the people are kept in their places and the wrong sort of people don’t get too close and, if necessary, remaking those people into people just like us. It’s about making sure that rules aren’t broken and boundaries aren’t crossed and this group remains a distinct people.
We even see it when people say that giving money or food or housing to the poor or hungry or homeless will just make them entitled and dependent, that it will rob them of their initiative and work ethic and dignity. As though being homeless isn’t hard enough work. As though not having enough to live on doesn’t rob you of your dignity.
There are a million ways we worry about rules and borders and grumble when we see Jesus: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
And Jesus replies to this grumbling with three parables.
Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine sheep in the middle of the wilderness where they can all be stolen by thieves – or eaten by wolves – and go after the one sheep that you lost? And when you find that sheep, which one of you wouldn’t call all of your friends and neighbors over for a party?
Or if a woman lost a coin worth slightly less than a day’s wages. Wouldn’t she comb over every inch of the house looking for it and, when she found it, call all of her friends and neighbors over for a party that will probably cost more than the value of the coin in the first place?
Or… Let me tell you about this guy who had two sons. One of the sons went to him and said, “Dad, I’d like to pretend you’re dead and have you give me my share of the inheritance and I’ll go have the life I want to have.” And when that went horribly wrong because the son wasn’t responsible with what he had been given, and he came home begging for mercy just like his mother said he would, that father threw a huge party that, frankly, was kind of insulting to the other son who had stayed on the farm and worked hard and never once had a party thrown for him.
I mean… who among you wouldn’t do the same thing?
The answer, I imagine, is pretty close to ‘all of us’. All of use would not do the same thing.
The sheep is gone. It’s a business loss. It’s a write off. You have to be kidding if you think I’m going to leave the rest of these sheep in danger to go after one. You have to be insane to think I’m going to celebrate finding a lost sheep.
The coin is probably under the couch. I’ll find it next time I vacuum. We will not be having a big expensive party to mark the occasion. Though, in fairness, I’m probably not going to vacuum unless I’m having people over anyway.
The kid can get a job and pay rent like a normal person.
We are not, in general, us white-bread American mainline Protestants, a people of parties and feasts. Perhaps for a birth or a birthday or a marriage or an anniversary. But not for a lost sheep or a lost coin. Possibly not even for a son who tries to return home after leaving us and acting like we don’t matter.
We are not even a people of parties and feasts when it comes to being given our daily bread or forgiven our debts or not being led into temptation or being delivered from evil.
But I think what Jesus might be suggesting to the Pharisees – to the people who grumble and worry about rules and boundaries – is that maybe we could be such a people: a people of parties and feasts.
Maybe when people speak of us they won’t say, “They are the people who pay tithes on mint and dill and cumin,” but, “They are the people who celebrate every sinner who returns to the fold!”
Maybe when people speak of us they won’t say, “They are the people who have a private table,” but, “They are the people who eat and drink with anyone!”
Maybe when people speak of us they won’t say, “They are the people who have different people in different places and demand that we be like them,” but, “They are the people who, no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, celebrate you as a beloved child of God!”
Maybe when people speak of us they won’t say, “They are the people who will offer you food when you’re hungry if you promise to get into a job training program and work to pay back your debt to them,” but, “They are the people of abundance who share everything they have without thought or concern; they will celebrate that you are eating a meal they gave you or moving into a home they built for you!”
Maybe when people speak of us they will say, “They are a people of great joy and abundant life! They are a people of parties and feasts!”
Last night you threw a party, a shrimp boil. And yes, that was a fundraiser for Back Bay Mission and we thank you profusely. What you did last night will house the homeless and feed the hungry and help people get back on their feet (of get on their feet for the first time). What you did last night will strengthen neighborhoods and seek justice and transform lives. And we thank you.
But I’d like to think it was also a celebration.
I’d like to think that we celebrated every house that has been built or rehabbed and, more importantly, every family who has found a home.
I’d like to think that we celebrated every bag of food that has been handed to the poor and to the homeless and, more importantly, every stomach that has been filled.
I’d like to think that celebrated every mission trip that has served in housing rehabilitation and the Micah Day Center and the food pantry and, more importantly, that we celebrated every person who discovered within themselves and their communities the power to change lives for the better.
I’d like to think that we celebrated every life that the Mission has touched and every life that Whitewater Congregational has touched and every life that the United Church of Christ has touched and every life that Christ has touched, which is every life.
I’d like to think that we marked ourselves as a people of feasts and parties who can say to the outcast, the marginalized, the disregarded, the unacknowledged, the hated, the despised, the weary, the broken, the proud, the righteous, the tax collectors, the sinners, the Pharisees, the scribes, the people of this whole wide world: “All you have to do to be part of this people, this community, this church, this love is show up. And we will celebrate one another.”
I’d like to think that we marked ourselves as a people about whom others will say, “They welcome sinners and eat with them.”
Because that would be good news, indeed.